Tag Archives: osha

Investigations spotlight workplace safety

Workplace safety got plenty of attention last week, from a public radio investigation in Seattle to a series by the Center for Public Integrity that includes plenty of opportunities for localizing.

KUOW’s John Ryan conducted hit the topic from all sides, with a five-part series on workplace safety in Washington. His story selection ranges from stats-directed investigations to features focusing on unique cases.

Chris Hamby did a two-part investigation in the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News on OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs, which exempt “model workplaces” from regular inspections (Part 1, Part 2).

Over the course of his eight-month investigation, Hamby pored over thousands of pages of documents which revealed, among other things, that “Since 2000, at least 80 workers have died at these sites, and investigators found serious safety violations in at least 47 of these cases.”

Workers at plants billed as the nation’s safest have died in preventable explosions, chemical releases and crane accidents. They have been pulled into machinery or asphyxiated. Investigators, called in because of deaths, have uncovered underlying safety problems — failure to follow recognized safety practices, inadequate inspections and training, lack of proper protective gear, unguarded machinery, improper handling of hazardous chemicals.

Yet these companies have rarely faced heavy fines or expulsion from the program. In death cases in which OSHA found at least one violation, VPP companies ultimately paid an average of about $8,000 in fines. And at least 65 percent of sites where a worker has died since 2000 remain in VPP today.

The program, with its emphasis on cooperation between regulators and industry, began under the Reagan administration and greatly expanded under the most recent Bush regime. There are some success stories, Hamby found, but he also uncovered a hearty helping of dirty laundry. Those included preventable deaths traced to OSHA violations, failures to self-police and an emphasis on expanding program participation at the expense of quality and safety.

In the second installment, Hamby spotlights oil refineries to illustrate what became a familiar pattern.

Recognition of “model workplace” status, missed opportunities to detect and fix hazards, a serious mishap or fatal accident, detection of safety violations and, ultimately, continuation of the government’s stamp of approval.

Hamby backs up these strong words with even stronger numbers. Here’s just one sample:

During 2009 and 2010, at least 21 of 55 fires at refineries falling under federal jurisdiction occurred at VPP sites, an iWatch News analysis of regulatory and news media reports found. VPP sites make up about 30 percent of these refineries, so these government-recognized sites have experienced more than their proportionate share of fires.

Reporters have already produced local versions of Hamby’s story throughout the country, particularly in Florida and Louisiana.

Related: OSHA lists 147 employers as “Severe Violators” of worker safety standards

Agenda indicates federal health priorities

This week, OMB Watch brought our attention to the recently released “Current Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions,” which serves as a sort of broad outline of the priorities of federal agencies.

It comes out twice a year, and OMB Watch found the latest edition to packed with health-related items from departments across the board. A few highlights, all summarized from the hard work of the folks at OMB Watch:

EPA Proposed labeling BPA and phthalates as “Chemicals of Concern” Proposed standards for “nanoscale materials” Updated air quality standards Department of Labor A prevention-oriented OSHA plan that would require employers to create and maintain plans to protect workers Proposal for limiting workers exposure to silica dust FDA For the first time, the FDA will begin asserting its newfound jurisdiction over tobacco.

OMB Watch points out that, while the agenda has not been a useful tool because agencies tend to miss the timelines, it “can be a useful planning and accountability tool to measure the Obama administration’s efforts to solve long-neglected health and safety problems.”

What we’re reading: OSHA, reform and a new site

These are busy times for AHCJ (getting ready for Health Journalism 2010!) but we want to take a moment to share some of what we’re reading:

OMBWatch: OSHA Proposal Cuts Workers’ Right to Know about Chemical Risks

PLoS ONE: The Unbearable Lightness of Health Science Reporting: A Week Examining Italian Print Media

FairWarning.org launches: New site to investigate health, safety and corporate conduct issues was founded by former Los Angeles Times reporters.

Poynter’s Al Tompkins has an interview with ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein (also president of AHCJ’s board of directors) about investigating nurses and regulatory boards.

Health care reform: What’s next? Reporters Jim Landers, Washington correspondent for The Dallas Morning News, and Noam Levey, health policy reporter for the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau, have advice on how to cover the local angles of health reform. Suggestions from other reporters will be added soon.

‘Gold mine’ of workplace toxicity data released

After a long FOIA battle that ended with a federal lawsuit, Adam Finkel, former OSHA director of health standards programs for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration  (bio and contact information), has “acquired data on some three million samples, taken at about 75,000 locations from 1979 to 2009,” the Center for Public Integrity reports as part of its “Data Mine” series.

The air and “wipe” samples in question were taken to determine workplace exposure to toxic substances. Finkel plans to analyze this data “gold mine” and make it available to the public in an easily digestible format (a project for which he has already secured grant money). At some point, OSHA itself may do the same.

Asked if OSHA plans to make the sampling data public, agency spokeswoman Diana Petterson responded in an e-mail that “it is under consideration and must address certain concerns including the data integrity and the completeness of the data.” Finkel, who left OSHA after accusing the agency of failing to test its own inspectors for dangerous levels of beryllium, is skeptical. “They made it as hard as they possibly could,” he said. “This database is up to 30 years old, and they’ve shown no interest in making it accessible or doing anything useful with it internally.”

The Data Mine series, a collaboration between The Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation, will highlight inaccessible or poorly presented information from the federal government.

From the CIA to the CDC, we’ll be looking at data that needs to be public, with regular posts on the Center’s and Sunlight’s websites. We’ll describe each data set, as well as officials’ plans for putting it online – or not.

Advocacy group: OSHA falls down on the job

Kirsten Stade, advocacy director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, writes on The Hill‘s Congress Blog that the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration has turned a blind eye to widespread underreporting of workplace safety violations. Stade says that OSHA “accepts without question industry reports that paint a rosy picture of workplace health – even for notoriously dangerous industries such as steel plants and poultry factories.”

Photo by kevin (iapetus) via Flickr.

The piece’s strongest words come from Robert Whitmore, a former OSHA official who Stade says lost his job after speaking out against the agency’s lax standards.

“I contend that the current OSHA Injury and Illness information is inaccurate, due in part to wide scale underreporting by employers and OSHA’s willingness to accept these falsified numbers. There are many reasons why OSHA would accept these numbers, but one important institutional factor has dramatically affected the Agency since 1992, regardless of the political party in power: steady annual declines in the number of workplace injuries and illnesses make it appear that OSHA is fulfilling its mission.”

While advocating for Whitmore’s reinstatement, Stade admits the Obama administration has taken some important steps toward increasing OSHA accountability.

On September 30, 2009, OSHA initiated an “Illness and Injury Recordkeeping National Emphasis Program” that beefs up enforcement of industry reporting rules. It is designed to “test OSHA’s ability to effectively target establishments to identify under-recording of occupational injuries and illnesses”.

As its name might indicate, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is a nonprofit environmental advocacy group made up of local, state and federal employees.